Micro fiction is a form of flash fiction that features extremely short stories. A common description defines micro fiction as ‘any story of less than 300 words’, but they are often much shorter.
Once a year, Flash Frontier runs their Micro issue, in which the word limit is a mere 100 . This year I was lucky to have my story Grandma’s House accepted for publication.
In this story I drew on childhood memories. Places visited when very young can inspire vivid images that linger as we grow older. My grandmother’s wooden villa in Wellington Road becomes jumbled up with the dark carpeted hallway in Uncle Fred’s Palmerston North house. The remembered smell of dusty carpet still tickles my nose, and the fall of sunlight in a particular way still evokes the recollection of golden light on shadowed corners. I recall the monochromatic photo of the smiling girl and the warm smell of freshly-baked shortbread.
These are places I can no longer physically reach. My micro story becomes the distillation of many memories into a single experience.
At least the birds are happy now. No longer any risk of being stalked by a furry, grey and white, four‑legged predator. I can hear them chirping away as I type, flitting around in the feijoa trees outside the window on this first sunny day since (it seems like) forever.
Sixteen years is a big chunk of my life. And it feels like she was always there. Peel Street, Wernham Place, Otitori Bay Road… here. Mornington to Birkenhead to French Bay to South Head. Of course I understand that it’s natural to feel these knives of grief in my chest. And I know she was merely a cat, not a child, or a parent, or a friend, or a lover. But the pain is sharper than I’d expected.
Just now, when I was outside checking the garden, with the bright sunlight and a gentle breeze, and the sweet smell of macadamia flowers in the air, I realised that I’m also going to physically miss her actually ‘being around’, not just miss her as my pet.
I don’t mind being alone here; in fact I like it. But up until now, Molly’s always been nearby. Often following me around. Finding me when I’m hanging out the washing, or jumping over the gate to join me when I’m in the vegetable garden, or setting herself down in a sunny spot not far from where I’m weeding. Because of this, I’ve never felt particularly alone out here, even when it’s been just me. And in the evenings, god knows she’d exasperate me by always trying to jump on my lap if I ever sat still for long enough. I’d be wanting to get up and do something and there she’d be. Purring away. Settled.
For the past week or so, she’d gotten back into the habit of sleeping pressed up against the backs of my legs at night. Being a night owl, I’m always the last to muck around and ready myself for bed. I’d turn off all the lights and see Molly, seemingly sound asleep on a dining chair, or on the sofa, or in front of the wood burner when it was cold. But the minute I’d settle into bed with a book, I’d hear a gruff “miaow”, and again, there she’d be. Ready to sleep on whatever item of clothing I’d left on the floor, or to settle herself down beside me. When I couldn’t sleep at night, I’d hear either her loud purr or the sound of her continually cleaning herself. It didn’t help.
And now she’s gone. She was alive at 7.45 am on Tuesday morning when we bundled her into her cat carrier and drove to the vet in Helensville. By 9.00 am she was dead. I didn’t expect it and I wasn’t prepared for it.
Goodbye Molly. If I’d only known, I’d have made such a fuss of you these past few weeks.
One of the family stories I’d heard, was that my great-great-great-grandfather, Newell Gascoyne, had been murdered. This seemed a somewhat significant way to die, so when I first moved to Auckland in 2006, I decided to fill in time by checking out some early newspapers. I took myself off to the Auckland Public Library to peruse their archives. Surely there’d be something written somewhere?
It was remarkably easy, I’m sure helped by the fact that he had an uncommon name.
The report transcribed below was published on page 5 of The New Zealand Herald of Saturday 16th April, 1864. It provides a somewhat different version of events. A less memorable version, but no less devastating for his wife Isabella and their 3 children. My great-great-grandmother, also named Isabella, was 16 and newly-married; her younger brothers, Newell and Daniel, would have been 14 and 11 respectively.
An inquest was held yesterday, at the Clanricarde Hotel, on the body of Newell Gascoigne, who died on the 13th inst., through injuries received by falling down a cellar, in Queen-street, on the 7th inst., while in a state of intoxication.
Frederick Sims, stated: I keep the Wheat-sheaf Inn, Queen-street. I knew deceased, who came to my house about 9 o’clock, a.m., on the 7th inst., and asked for some grog, which I refused to give him, and put him outside the door. Some one coming in soon after, I heard there was a man in the cellar, and went to the door. I saw some policemen and others engaged in lifting the deceased out of the cellar of Mr. Kemp’s house, next door to mine. Deceased appeared then only dead drunk, and made no noise. Deceased was then taken away in a truck. The depth of the cellar is about four feet, and the floor is covered with bran. There was nothing in the cellar that deceased could have struck against.
James Jackson, police constable, said, that on Thursday, the 7th inst., he heard there was a man hurt, and went and found deceased lying on his back on the pathway, outside the cellar of Mr. Kemp’s house, in Queen-street. The man was insensibly drunk. I got a truck, with two other policemen, and removed him to the lock-up. He did not appear in any pain, and I did not think there was anything wrong except being drunk.
Francis Jones, stated: I am a carter. I was employed by Mr. Kemp, carting some bran from his cellar, the day before the accident, and I came early on the morning of the 7th inst., to get another load. I had put one bag into the cart, and coming back for another, I saw a man in the cellar, who must have fallen in. He was lying on his back just below the grating. On getting him out of the cellar, he appeared drunk, but I could not see that he was hurt. The cellar was between three and four feet deep.
Thomas B. Kenderdine, stated: I am a legally qualified medical practitioner. I was called in to see the deceased on Friday, the 8th inst. He was in his own house. I found him in bed, lying on his back, with the lower half of his body paralysed. He complained of a great pain in his back. He was sensible and able to speak and swallow. He lived until the 13th inst. I consider the cause of death to have been injury to the spinal marrow, producing paralysis. I did not make a post mortem examination.
The Sergeant-Major of the Police stated he had given up the deceased to his wife on the night of the 7th inst., about 9 o’clock. He was then sober, and complained of pain in his back, and being unable to get up. He was taken to his house on a stretcher.
The jury, having consulted, returned a verdict – That deceased died from the effects of a fall received while in a state of intoxication.
Nothing is as new as something that’s been long forgotten (German Proverb)
Stories from the past are interesting. Especially when they’re about our own families. But the problem is that so little is passed down. You are handed the bare bones without the flesh. Even the Coroner’s Report leaves me with more questions than answers. The records are merely black print on faded paper; they don’t fill in the details I’m curious about.
I have a copy of Newell Gascoyne’s Death Certificate. It succinctly states: Newell Gascoygne, Mariner, Male 35, Paralysis caused by injury of the spine. 13 April 1864, Auckland.
Did he stumble and fall into the cellar? Is that what his family believed? Or did they suspect he’d been the victim of foul play, hence the story about being ‘murdered’? Or was it that they were ashamed that he’d been ‘insensibly drunk’ at 9.00 o’clock in the morning, and subsequently passed on a different version to their children?
The past holds its secrets close to its chest.
Newell Gascoyne (c.1829-1864) & Isabella Barr (c.1825-1880)
Isabella Gascoyne (1847-1916) & Antonio Jose de Freitas (1834-c.1898) (Married: 7 January 1864, St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Auckland)
John Antonio de Freitas (1872-1937) & Eliza Jane Manderson (1879-1941)
William Peter Joseph (1900-1969) & Nina Geary (1895-1972)
In the old records, Gascoyne is variously spelled Gascon, Gasgoine, Gascoigne, Gascoyne and Gaskong. Newell Gascoyne’s occupation is first noted as mariner, and later as sawyer. They also show that his children Isabella, Newell and Daniel were all born in Auckland, and that when younger Isabella applied to get married in January 1864, she was resident at Mills Lane, Auckland (and had lived there for 4 years).
The Mills Lane address is also supported by a report in The New Zealander, Vol. XIX, Issue 1879, where in a report about ‘A Determined Thief’, Isabella (senior) is referred to as the ‘wife of Newell Gascoigne, Mill’s Lane’. She was giving evidence about the movements of a Thomas Hill, who had been ‘lodging for two weeks at her house’. (27 May 1863)
Molly’s curled up by the fire. A rounded hummock not unlike the curved mound of a hill, although grey and white, not green. The kind of hill that catches the eye while driving past. Something about the shape so pleasing that you have to look back.
Oh Molly! You’re growing old and I wonder that you still look the same. Or almost. No tail of course. That fluffy appendage dislocated from your body (we think) by a dog, eighteen months ago. The nub of your spine still twitches when I pat you.
Your life has run alongside mine for so many years. Through relationship changes, children turning to adults, and the rotation of the seasons. From the bracing frosts of Dunedin, to the humid summers up here on The Kaipara.
We began our journey in Mornington and ended up at South Head, with brief stints in Birkenhead and Titirangi. From hilltop to suburbia, from dense kauri to verdant farmland. We’ve negotiated roosters and toddlers (each has its challenges), and been together ‘through thick and thin’, as the saying goes.
I know that you’ll be my last moggy… we both love the birds around here too much and actually, I don’t think you’re replaceable. But for now, I like the way you curl up close to me each night, and talk to me with gruff miaows.
Jagged stubbles of corn lie in parallel rows. They stretch away on tawny fields as far as the eye can see. The wide sky is wintry pale, dissected only by the vapour trails of jets, and it seems larger than life, with no hills between where I stand and the horizon, no matter which direction I look. Deciduous trees form random clumps. Bereft of foliage, their skeletal branches are exposed to the elements.
With the melting snow and ice comes an intense smell of cattle. Indeed, the countryside is dotted with farmlets; each has large reddish-brown beasts grazing the corn stubble, or standing in pens set upon rich, dark earth. Ancient barns contrast with shiny metal silos. Houses are picturesque – mostly painted white with steep-angled, grey shingle roofs and gables.
In the shady places where a little icy snow still lies, the earth is hard and frozen underfoot. Every blade of grass is dead and brown. The roots lie far below, waiting for warmer weather before sending their tender shoots upwards.
Yesterday we drove to nearby Branched Oak lake, and as I stood in the setting sun gazing out across the wide expanse of blue ice, a huge flock of Canada geese honked loudly from their roosting place at the lake’s centre.
For a person accustomed to hills, mountains and the ever-present sea, to trees that retain their foliage all year round, to grass that still needs mowing in the heart of winter, the very vastness of this land astounds me. As does the uniformity of colour – the blue of the daytime sky, the pale gold of the vast, rolling fields, the grey and white of the houses.
There is contrast, too. In the bright colours splashed on the landscape by progress. Every gas station or fast food outlet sports an enormous pole with a garish advertising sign on top. And there are fat round water towers, painted blue or white, which break the line of vision.
Every evening, the sun sinks low on a flat horizon and the sky is lit with flaming fingers of orange, rapidly changing to crimson, to ruby, and suddenly to midnight blue. The great dome above becomes awash with stars, the air becomes crisp and frosty, and the silence of the winter’s night descends upon us.
Adapted from a piece first published in Nerdnosh Vol. 4, #49; Story 4 — Feb 19, 1996